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DOWN THE HULAHULA : The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is Wilderness Without Qualification. The Question Is, Should It Stay That Way?

June 20, 1993|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar, The Times' Northwest Bureau chief, has yet to reach his accommodation with mosquitoes


Joe Firman's blue Cessna 207--chipped, dented, faded and otherwise worn hard--growls and lurches down a gravel bar, then lifts and floats upward, heading south. We watch and listen, standing amid piles of gear, in a frosty wind blowing down off the polar ice pack.

Steadily, the Cessna rises and the RRRAHHH of its propeller fades to rrrahhh . Then Joe and the bush plane draw smaller and disappear over the blade-edge of the mountain divide. One far-off sputter of internal combustion reaches us, and then no sound at all. Nothing but the swirl of empty wind.

In the conspicuous silence, the six of us--five travelers and one guide--stand spellbound. We are 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, as close to the middle of nowhere as humans can get in North America, feeling as small as any of us will ever feel.

Firman has set us down in the far northeast corner of Alaska--in the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the banks of the very un-tropical Hulahula River. Ragged and majestic, the ice-capped limestone peaks and bare shale buttresses of the Brooks Range rise around us. For the next 10 days we will raft 65 miles, north and downriver, utterly removed from what is regarded as civilization.

"Opening day," beams backcountry guide Macgill Adams, breathing in reverently, reaching out with open hands to embrace the wild Arctic. This is the beginning of his 14th summer in these parts. Macgill is the real McCoy, master of the genre. He is naturalist, storyteller, adventurer and chef, and he carries 100-pound loads. He has a significant reputation, which in Alaska is not easy to earn or maintain. He has raced in the Iditarod, been a Brooks Range guide as long as almost anyone. His wilderness philosophy is elegant, fierce and fun-loving: We can control nothing, but we will handle everything. The Arctic demands only that we have the right attitude, threading our way between arrogance and fear.

"If you don't, the Arctic is unforgiving," Macgill warns us.

His tent mate and trip assistant, Anchorage dental technician DeeDee VanVliet, has heard all this before. So has another Anchorage resident, Allen E. Smith, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society. And even the occasional outdoorsmen among us, myself and photographer Al Seib, are familiar with this concept of letting loose without letting go. But along with Baltimore businessman and greenhorn Christopher Swift, we all listen carefully, maintaining our best game faces.

Above us, the cloud ceiling has dropped, and a rain squall is setting in. The river, saturated with powdery silt from its headwater glaciers, flows turbid as a milkshake, rising with the downfall and the melt. We will later lose a magnum of champagne, set out to be chilled in the river's swirling depths. Up goes a camp shelter, and we retreat under it. The sensation is curious. We are crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder, while all around us is the vastness of treeless mountains. It is the first but by no means last instance in which our sense of scale will go gooney on us in the Arctic.

Time is the next casualty. An afternoon of river watching and landscape awe drifts into evening and then into night, although these distinctions are artificial now. The sun neither rises nor sets above the Arctic Circle, liberating us from the most relentless rhythm of our lives.

Finally, our tents go up in a cluster. I nest deep in my sleeping bag. The wind and rain drum on the nylon above me, and on my urbanized psyche. I fish out my flagon of Scotch. It's unwise to fill one's tent with the irresistible vapors of fermented sugar while sleeping in grizzly bear country. But I take a fast, gulp anyway. A calculated risk, that's the secret.

As the tent shudders, I have a pang of remorse: We are deep into a preserve people rarely penetrate, where we do not dominate. We are here with our whiskey and fat rubber boats. We are trespassing.

THE 19-MILLION-ACRE Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is slightly larger than Ireland. At latitude 69 degrees north, 325 miles north-northeast of Fairbanks, it contains no roads, boasts no gateways, offers no shelter, encourages no contact. Its contours are sharp out of the castings. It is one of the wildest and most remote places in the world. You can call it natural and leave off the qualifiers.

This is a land of permafrost, rock, tundra and horizon. Too far north for trees, it is never far from ice. During each short growing season, from mid-June to mid-August, life is as vital as it is vulnerable.

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